Now You're Grounded: Delivering Virtual Leadership

  • Ezra
  • August 27th, 2020

It is not unusual for newly hired senior leaders to conduct “listening tours” to gauge culture and engagement in their organizations. In large organizations, these tours can involve weeks of travel to get a first-hand look at different plants and regional offices.

But what is that new leader to do when the COVID-19 pandemic has made travel impossible and face-to-face contact is contra indicated? Quite obviously, leaders have to become creative in reaching out to their workforces.

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That was certainly the approach taken by Tom Ruggia, who left a high-level job at Johnson & Johnson in July 2020 to become the CEO of VisionCare Inc., a much smaller medical device company that specializes in products for people suffering from macular degeneration. Ruggia told The Wall Street Journal that when he was trying to devise a way of conducting a listening tour in a virtual environment, he had to employ some unusual techniques.

To reach out to VisionCare’s principle research and manufacturing operation in Israel, Ruggia arranged with a manager there to call via FaceTime and then walk around the plant so that he could see the employees. “It’s not like making a trip to Israel, and that’s still in the plans for when that can occur again,” Ruggia told the WSJ. “But at least they can see my facing moving around the building.”

Same key leadership attributes, different modes of delivery

Ruggia’s unique approach is a good example of the core reality of virtual leadership: the best practices of leadership have not changed; the change comes in the way in which those best practices are delivered.

Leadership researchers and gurus have been preparing for years for the challenge of virtual leadership. With increasing globalization of business, business leaders were already facing significant challenges in building with the people they lead in a more virtual environment.

Keith Ferrazzi, an expert in team dynamics, wrote an article in the Harvard Business Review all the way back in 2014 on the challenge of leading virtual teams. In it, he cited research that found serious, lingering concerns about the quality of work performed by remote or virtual teams.

Ferrazzi suggested that in an age where technology has made it quite easy for virtual collaboration and work, the missing ingredient must be effective leadership. What is most intriguing about Ferrazzi’s analysis is that the core elements of strong leadership he identifies – building trust, encouraging open dialogue, clarifying goals and guidelines – are not unique to virtual leadership. These are, Ferrazzi noted, “simple high-return practices” that serve as the hallmarks of good leadership in any context that “must be amplified” in a virtual setting.

The big three leadership skills in a pandemic context
There is virtually no disagreement among subject matter experts about the leadership skills and behaviours needed to motivate and engage workers. But three core skills have taken on more importance during the pandemic.

Communication
This skill tends to hold down the top spot on the gross majority of lists of core leadership capabilities. But in an environment where basic communication has become so challenged, it takes on greater importance and involves greater challenges for individual leaders.

We’re all aware that video conferencing is the bedrock of business communication these days but with so many interactions taking place each day on Zoom or Teams, it may be difficult for senior leaders to find a moment to reach out. Video messages, live streamed townhall meetings and regular email dispatches from senior leaders – all things in play before COVID-19 – have taken on new importance now that offices are largely still closed.

Emotional intelligence
There are few leadership concepts more stressed than emotional intelligence, the collection of so-called soft skills that help leaders connect with and engage employees. However, with the pandemic still raging around us, qualities such as empathy, compassion and self-awareness have gone from highly desirable to absolutely essential.

Everything that leaders say or do, and how and when they do it, can be an emotional trigger for employees who have been ripped from the structure of an office environment and plunged into the added stress and uncertainty of remote work.

Trust and empowerment
Leaders of organizations that had already demonstrated high degrees of trust with their employees are reaping multiple benefits during the pandemic. Leaders who trust their employees will find that, when it’s time to steer the company ship into the uncertain waters of a crisis, it’s all hands on deck.

Those who failed to show faith and trust may find that when faced with a crisis the magnitude of a global pandemic, their employees are cowering below deck, waiting for someone to tell them what to do.

Recent events have certainly demonstrated the value of preparedness. Those companies that had contingency plans for remote work fared better than those who had never even considered the possibility that their people could not work from the office.

The same holds true for leadership skills. Those leaders who applied themselves to learning and honing skills like effective communication, emotional intelligence and trust are now reaping the benefits. Those who ignored the importance of these skills are now operating at a great disadvantage.

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